The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth Book 1) by N.K. Jemisin (2015) (read in 2017)
Published by marco on
Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.
This is a very good book. It took me about a 100 pages to get into it, to get used to the storytelling rhythms of the author, to the at-times deliberate obfuscation and confusion. I feel that it took Jemisin that long to get into it as well, because the storytelling felt much more fluid in the later 70% of the book than in the first 30%. It is entirely possible that this is purely my fault, I’ll admit. I’m not getting any less-set in my ways. I just offer it as a warning to those who may be similarly put-off by the storytelling style—stick with it; it’s worth it.
This is the story of an alternate Earth—one we learn follows our own auspicious, but ultimately doomed age—on which “Father Earth” plays a much-more active and vicious role, through extreme geologic events. Humans have split into distinct species, with distinct powers. The primary focus of this book is on the orogenes—humans who can draw power from any source, but primarily use the immense powers of the Earth itself. There is an arcane hierarchy amongst them. The least of them can manipulate the earth, but with no fine control. The most advanced of them can control molecules and draw immense power from disparate sources.
There is so much going on in this book: The Guardians, the Fulcrum, the Leadership class, the Orogenes, the Geomesters, the Stone-eaters, Alabaster’s power and history and rebelliousness, Syenites power and connection to the floating obelisks, supposed relics of long-dead and failed human civilizations that followed the loss of Father Earth’s “child”. These relics litter the planet in innumerable number, each serving as the tombstone of a civilization that failed to prepare properly for the often-long Fifth Seasons—sometime decades-long intermezzos initiated by cataclysmic geologic events.
The book is ostensibly about Syenite but is split between three tales, each of which tells of another facet of her life, though this doesn’t become clear until late in the book (a feature that requires trust on the part of the reader—a trust Jemisin is ultimately a worthy of). It felt a bit derivative at first, but then I realized that it was following in the lines of other books and series that I’ve really liked (e.g. Potter, Dune, Song of Ice and Fire) and that it was mixing these concepts in its own unique and well-written way. It’s a rollicking tale—at times almost too quick-moving, cramming in so much at once, but somehow suitably controlled—and I’m looking forward to book two.
“[…] they will kill her career and assign her permanently to the Fulcrum, leaving her nothing to do but lie on her back and turn men’s grunting and farting into babies. She’ll be lucky to have only six if that’s how things turn out.”
This is kind of writing found more at the beginning of the book, which smacks you in the face with modern American youth politics and is a bit jarring. When I read this, I wrote “Men are useless. as are the old. This does not bode well.” I kept reading and was rewarded as my ability to Jemisin settled into her storytelling and my tolerance increased.
“Nothing to do but follow your crazy, though. You’ve eaten something from your pack: cachebread smeared with salty akaba paste from the jar”
Here, too, I was thrown out of the story with the hyper-modern colloquialism from our time (“follow your crazy”) mixed with arcana from the world Jemisin is weaving. The subsequent 500 pages show that these lapses are rarities where the author’s voice intrudes. The device of the second person was odd, at first (as it nearly always is), but there was a method to the madness if you stick with the book.
At 100 pages in, I was seeing too much of other books I’d read. This one felt a bit like a “throw in everything but the kitchen sink” plot, with bits of Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Dune, Fifty Shades (Schaffa, the Guardian’s torture—which also ended up having its point, in the end, but felt wildly out-of-place when introduced) and a smattering of SJW YA books I’ve never read. Still, several of those tomes are quite good, so I continued, hoping for the best (and being rewarded).
"I didn’t know.” She slurs the words around the back of her hand. The words don’t make sense but she feels compelled to say them. “I didn’t.”
“You think that matters?” It’s almost cruel, the emotionlessness of his voice and face.
“It matters to me!”
“You think you matter?” All at once he smiles. It’s an ugly thing, cold as the vapor that curls off ice. “You think any of us matter beyond what we can do for them? Whether we obey or not.” He jerks his head toward the body of the abused, murdered child. “You think he mattered, after what they did to him? The only reason they don’t do this to all of us is because we’re more versatile, more useful, if we control ourselves. But each of us is just another weapon, to them. Just a useful monster, just a bit of new blood to add to the breeding lines. Just another fucking rogga.” She has never heard so much hate put into one word before.
Asael actually flinches as the analogies finally get through to her. Syenite waits in silence, letting it gather pressure. Finally Asael says, “I see.”
“Maybe you do.”
She keeps waiting, and Asael sighs. “What do you want? An apology? Then I apologize. You must remember, though, that most normal people have never seen an orogene, let alone had to do business with one, and—” She spreads her hands. “Isn’t it understandable that we might be… uncomfortable?”
“Discomfort is understandable. It’s the rudeness that isn’t.” Rust this. This woman doesn’t deserve the effort of her explanation. Syen decides to save that for someone who matters. “And that’s a really shitty apology. ‘I’m sorry you’re so abnormal that I can’t manage to treat you like a human being.’”
“You’re a rogga,” Asael snaps, and then has the gall to look surprised at herself.
“Syenite flinches, suddenly remembering the dead child in the node station near Mehi. Oh. The Fulcrum controls all the node maintainers. What if they have some way to force those poor damaged children to listen, and to spit back what they listen to, like some kind of living telegraph receivers? Is that what he fears? Is the Fulcrum like a spider, perching in Yumenes’s heart and using the web of nodes to listen in on every conversation in the Stillness?”
This part reminds me of Dune. The citations from millennia-old books at the ends of the chapters are very much like Dune, as well.
“She is aware of Alabaster, twitching because he is convulsing, how did she not realize this before, he is not in control of his own body, there is something about the glassknife in his shoulder that has rendered him helpless for all his power, and the look on his face is of helpless fear and agony.”
This was a bit of a quick transition that seemed a bit of a crude way to manipulate the reader. Alabaster went from most powerful orogene ever to utterly helpless in seconds. This whipsaw is a little annoying. making me feel like I’m just along for the ride, unable to comprehend or predict anything about this world. It’s kind of like reading comic books these days: everyone’s a genius/billionaire/most-power-in-the-universe hero … until they’re not. And it’s impossible to tell what will fell a hero. It feels cheaper than it needed to be—there could have been more of a struggle. The Guardians and the Stone-Eaters function too much as Deux Ex Machinae for my taste. They need to be a bit more fallible, too, otherwise it’s poor game balance.
“(Friends do not exist. The Fulcrum is not a school. Grits are not children. Orogenes are not people. Weapons have no need of friends.)”
The analogies to our world are clear: Stonelore is propaganda. Roggas are niggas. Sanze is the U.U. The islands are free nations, struggling to escape its yoke and influence.
“There passes a time of happiness in your life, which I will not describe to you. It is unimportant. Perhaps you think it wrong that I dwell so much on the horrors, the pain, but pain is what shapes us, after all.
“We are creatures born of heat and pressure and grinding, ceaseless movement. To be still is to be… not alive. But what is important is that you know it was not all terrible.
“There was peace in long stretches, between each crisis. A chance to cool and solidify before the grind resumed. Here is what you need to understand. In any war, there are factions: those wanting peace, those wanting more war for a myriad of reasons, and those whose desires transcend either. And this is a war with many sides, not just two. Did you think it was just the stills and the orogenes? No, no. Remember the stone eaters and the Guardians, too—oh, and the Seasons. Never forget Father Earth. He has not forgotten you.”
You don’t want to understand, but you do. You don’t want to believe, but really, you have all along.
“You tore that rift up north,” you breathe. Your hands are clenching into fists. “You split the continent. You started this Season. With the obelisks! You did… all of that.”
“Yes, with the obelisks, and with the aid of the node maintainers. They’re all at peace now.” He exhales, wheezily. “I need your help.”
You shake your head automatically, but not in refusal. “To fix it?”
“Oh, no, Syen.”
You don’t even bother to correct him this time. You can’t take your eyes from his amused, nearly skeletal face. When he speaks, you notice that some of his teeth have turned to stone, too. How many of his organs have done the same? How much longer can he—should he—live like this?
“I don’t want you to fix it,” Alabaster says. “It was collateral damage, but Yumenes got what it deserved. No, what I want you to do, my Damaya, my Syenite, my Essun, is make it worse.”
You stare at him, speechless. Then he leans forward. That this is painful for him is obvious; you hear the creak and stretch of his flesh, and a faint crack as some piece of stone somewhere on him fissures. But when he is close enough, he grins again, and suddenly it hits you. Evil, eating, Earth. He’s not crazy at all, and he never has been.